India, Australia making up for lost time - The Times of India NEW DELHI: With the "uranium irritant" out of the way, India and Australia are scaling up defence and security ties. Australia may rejoin the high-profile Malabar naval exercises with India, the US and Japan in the near future as well as working in tandem on the South China Sea. Stephen Smith, Australia's defence minister, on a three-day visit to India soon after the ruling Labour party voted to overturn the ban on selling uranium to India, told journalists, "I have no doubt that the uranium decision has removed any potential irritant in relationship and set the scene for further improved relationship," he said. India and Australia will start discussions on a safeguards agreement, which, if the Australia-China agreement is anything to go by, could be a tough one. In any case, it will be many years before India buys the first shipment of uranium from Australia. Smith, a strong votary of changing the policy, said, "Our uranium decision also reflects that not just that India voluntarily has brought itself under the international regulators of civil nuclear energy the IAEA and NSG." Australia had voted for a waiver for India in the NSG in 2008. Australia and India are in the process of building strong ties in maritime security, particularly in the South and East China Seas and the Indian Ocean rim. This formed the bulk of Smith's conversations with defence minister A K Antony and the naval chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma. The defence ministry said, "Both sides agreed that challenges in the area of maritime security like piracy and freedom of navigation are important issues which required concerted efforts of the global community." Stressing that the India-Australia cooperation in this area was not China-centric, he said both countries reaffirmed the importance of law of the sea, freedom of navigation in international sea lanes. Significantly, he said, that on territorial disputes, regional and international bodies have an interest in ensuring that these disputes are resolved peacefully. This was a direct refutation of China's claim that the dispute was "bilateral" and "outsiders" had no role to play. In the recently concluded East Asia Summit, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao asked other countries to keep their noses out of the South China Sea dispute. Smith's statement was a definite pushback. Smith said Australia led the maritime security group in the ADMM plus grouping, which focused on the dispute. Smith also clarified that India was one of the few countries that had been briefed in advance about the US-Australia decision to base marines in Darwin in northern Australia. "This is about enhancing our ship-to-shore capabilities," Smith said. The decision, he said, was a "practical manifestation" of the Australian argument that the "US was a force for stability and peace". China has opposed the US-Australia decision, saying they were against military alliances. The Indo-Australian relationship has suffered in the past few years despite many convergences, held hostage to a political decision by Canberra to sell uranium to New Delhi until it had signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. India remained quietly adamant on the issue. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's refusal to attend the CHOGM summit in Australia was seen as a political statement. The two countries are now making up for the lost time.